Born Delores Evans, 11 November 1929, Chicago, Illinois
Blessed with a stunning voice and good looks, LaVern Baker was one of the most significant R&B recording artists of the 1950s. She could have been even bigger if her early career had not been plagued by white cover records.
She was born in 1929 into a musical family. Two of her aunts were well-known blues singers : Memphis Minnie and Merline Johnson (also known as 'The Yas Yas Girl'). Singing in her local Baptist church choir gave her the necessary vocal training. At the age of seventeen LaVern began singing in Chicago clubs like the Club Delisa, calling herself 'Little Miss Sharecropper', but in 1947 her family relocated to Detroit. There she sang at the Flame Showbar, which was managed by Al Green, who became her manager and landed her a contract with Columbia Records. However, nothing from her debut recording session in 1948 was released. Next she recorded with the Eddie Penigar Band for RCA Victor, resulting in two singles in 1949, where she was billed as Little Miss Sharecropper. This moniker was shortened to Miss Sharecropper for two records on National in 1951. In the same year Columbia/OKeh released three singles by her as Bea Baker, with Maurice King and his Wolverines. She finally arrived at the name LaVern Baker when she joined Todd Rhodes' band as featured vocalist in 1952. This resulted in four singles on King, all featuring LaVern on one side and an instrumental on the other. She toured with Rhodes in Europe for much of the winter 1952-53 and on her return she set out to establish a solo recording career.
The company that she signed with was Atlantic Records in New York City, co-owned by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson. The latter was serving his country in Germany at the time LaVern began recording for the label on June 19, 1953. Ertegun found a new collaborator in Jerry Wexler, who "lost his maiden" in the studio (as Wexler puts it in his autobiography) with this session, which yielded the single "Soul On Fire"/"How Can You Leave A Man Like This". An impressive debut, but it was her third Atlantic single that established her not only as a major R&B star, but also one with serious pop potential. Released in late 1954, "Tweedlee Dee" (with its Latinesque rhythm, borrowed from "Brazil") peaked at # 4 on the R&B charts and # 14 on the pop charts. However, LaVern was deprived of a much bigger hit by white singer Georgia Gibbs, whose note-for-note cover went to # 2 pop. An incensed LaVern took the unprecedented step of lobbying her congressman to change the law and make this kind of plagiarism illegal. A law was never passed, but it gave LaVern a lot of publicity and she was now well established in the industry. She became a regular on Alan Freed's rock n roll shows and appeared in Freed's movies "Rock Rock Rock" (1956) and "Mister Rock and Roll" (1957).
By 1955 Atlantic was becoming known for its commercial R and B arrangements, featuring sing-along choruses (in LaVern's case The Gliders, better known as The Cues) and beats that were easy to dance to. This was one way of fighting off the white covers and it helped several Atlantic R&B artists to cross over to the pop charts. LaVern had 18 pop hits during her 11-year tenure at Atlantic and 20 R&B hits, 18 of which went Top 20. Her only number one (R&B) was "Jim Dandy" in early 1957, one of her best rockers. Other notable hits were "I Cried A Tear" (her only pop Top 10 hit, # 6, # 2 R&B) in 1959 and the Leiber- Stoller classic "Saved" (1961), a hard-driving gospel rocker. Her wildest offering, the great "Voodoo Voodoo", recorded in September 1958, was inexplicably held back for three years and then tucked away on a B-side. LaVern's last Atlantic release was "Fly Me To the Moon" in January 1965. Her Atlantic period is by far the most interesting of her career. In spite of the concessions to the white pop market, the recordings have stood the test of time well and offer plenty of variation (rock n roll, ballads, pop, R&B, gospel, blues, jazz).
During 1965-67 she had seven single releases on Brunswick, of which only one met with chart success : "Think Twice", a duet with Jackie Wilson (# 37 R&B, # 93 pop, 1966). It was her last chart entry. Whilst touring the Far East during in 1967 she was recommended for the position of entertainment director at a Marine Corps night club in the Philippines and stayed there for 21 years. In 1988 she returned to perform at Madison Square Garden for Atlantic's 40th anniversary and then worked on the soundtracks of several movies (including "Dick Tracy"). In 1990 she replaced her old label mate Ruth Brown in the Broadway show "Black And Blue" and released a new CD, "Live In Hollywood". In 1991 Baker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as a performer.
Towards the end of her life, LaVern suffered from diabetes and a series of strokes. Both her legs were amputated in 1994, but she continued to perform occasionally from a wheelchair, until her death (from coronary complications) on March 10th, 1997, at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.
More info :
Sessionography / discography (by Frank Frantik) :
Acknowledgements : Bob Fisher, Hank Davis, Charlie Gillett.
Dik, February 2012
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